internal motivation is more important than external motivators for leaders

July 24, 2014

Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead is an excellent article on the Harvard Business Review website.

In a study, over 10,000 Army officers were tracked from their entrance into West Point until well into their careers. The findings were surprising. Read the following paragraph from the article:

 “As one might predict, we found that those with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, instrumental rationales for their service — a common finding in studies of motivation. We were surprised to find, however, that those with both internal and external rationales proved to be worse investments as leaders than those with fewer, but predominantly internal, motivations. Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%.  Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.” [emphasis added]

“Motivating” leaders with external incentives is actually poison to a person’s development – interesting. Now read this paragraph:

“One of the longstanding dichotomies in the field of leader development is whether to teach leadership as skills that lead to higher performance (a competency-based model that is relatively easy to metric), or to teach leadership as a complex moral relationship between the leader and the led (a values-based model that is challenging to metric).  Our study demonstrates that those who lead primarily from values-based motivations, which are inherently internal, outperform those who lead with additional instrumental outcomes and rewards.” [emphasis added]

The bottom line is the internal “WHY” of leaders, their own internal motivation is what really matters. So, the logical conclusion to me is that the beginning of a leader development process in your organization is learning how to determine the people who have a strong internal motivation to lead and are not motivated by extrinsic rewards. I like the summary statement of the article:

“If you aspire to lead in business or society, first ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to be a leader?’ The answer to that question, as it turns out, will make a significant difference in how well you lead.”

So, what is motivating you to lead? What is your WHY?